Friday Flicks: The Last Jedi
This review is not going to go the way you think.
Director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin give the Star Wars franchise its most powerful images to date in The Last Jedi. Near the midpoint of its 2h 32m runtime, Princess Leia look-alike Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) pilots her doomed cruiser into a First Order flagship at light-speed. The film—clipping along at a cheery, adventure-flick pace—jumps the rails for a stunning ten seconds.
Yedlin and Johnson slow their footage down. They montage together a series of almost-frozen frames, cutting away a hot instant after the uncomfortable twinge of sustained attention kicks in. They stitch the sequential shots together like the panels of a Marvel comic book spread in linear time—thumbnail close-ups all gathered around a center image, seeking out finer detail.
The screen is mostly desaturated. It’s lit by a ghastly blue raking light from the fading, glowing contrails of Holdo’s magnificent “fuck you.” It’s as unsettling and unexpected, for example, as the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: the flash-cuts to the fear-stricken, g’s-strained face of Dave as he rockets through the eerie star-gate in his pod at hyper-speed. It is scarier than the sweat subliming off Carrie Fisher’s face as she limply floats in hard vacuum, sucked out from a hull breach during The Last Jedi’s first act. (Incidentally, it’s the first such “spacing” for a series set in the stars; Leia survives, and the late Carrie Fisher delivers a decisive performance clean through to the credits.)
The staging of this dreadnought’s destruction has nothing to do with Star Wars but everything to do with Star Wars and that is why it’s excellent—original and astringent. It is unprecedented. The sight is a throwback to the rugged USC grad who started it all, melding Metropolis to homefront propaganda movies filmed through the gun-ports of WWII bomber aces.
The Last Jedi—which largely reprises the beats of its historical predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back—scintillates with these little, cinematic kyber crystals. Protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) scrapping it out with wild-eyed Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the two beating each other in the bruised blue-black of a night-time thunderstorm with lightless quarterstaff and improvised club. Or: Rey and rival Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) taking up garde positions to fight together, back-to-back, against a vivid, crimson ground.
Indeed, here is the samurai vision that George Lucas saw but never had the boldness to seize. It’s perfectly symmetrical: Rey’s tan and charcoal tunic, her light blue light saber, balanced out by Ren’s black robe and seething red claymore, a crescent-moon of menacing, First Order shock troops tightening close. All the colors are crisp, keyed-in as broad swatches; the whole scene, shot dead-on and a little low to the ground collapses down flat, without perspective. It is richly graphical, like a ukiyo-e woodblock print.
Johnson, however, here joins Lucas for want of boldness. The raw, untamed power of these scenes—this fight scene, in particular—slips through his tightened fingers like rebel star systems. He never realizes the image’s potential for dynamic, epic storytelling: the narrative consequences of Rey and Ren battling as one unit.
For a brief, dizzying second—the whole franchise opened up like a dreamy binary sunset over the vast, desert wastes. It was completely uncharted territory and bracing. What could possibly drive the plot if these foils became allies? Would The Last Jedi become a buddy-cop dream-team kind of movie? (Here was balance in the Force!)
Yet, Johnson repeats the mistakes of his master. Lucas lost his clarity of vision arguably into the jam-packed third act of his 1983 Return of the Jedi, and infamously by the 90’s-aughts’s “prequel” trilogy. Johnson is similarly myopic. Rey and Ren tear Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber apart in an infantile tug-of-war and the tried and tested battle-lines reestablish themselves for a superfluous redux of Empire’s Echo Base assault. And that, young Skywalker, is why you fail.
The film’s fuzzy, CGI penguins—the "porgs"—are bearable because they are superficial gimmicks and not structural shortcomings. Take Vice Admiral Holdo, with which this review began, as a token of the latter. Thirteenth in the credits, Laura Dern is perhaps the most needless member in a bloated ensemble that includes first-timers Kelly Marie Tran and Benicio Del Toro.
Dern’s Leia-alike Admiral doesn’t even outlive the film to replace Fisher. These new characters—ostensibly a way for Johnson to make his home in a galaxy far, far away—suck out crucial characterization that might otherwise have strengthened the dream team introduced in the previous film, The Force Awakens: the Jedi-in-training Rey, defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).
The result is that The Last Jedi becomes a messy, unwieldy blocking nightmare in service to half-baked character arcs. The plot is weighted down with an hour of the valiant Resistance fleet literally flying through empty space (an hour of Johnson trying to make the audience care); a criminally underused casino-town meant to conjure up Billy Dee Williams’s swanky Empire mining colony Bespin.
Boyega’s heroically treasonous Finn is downgraded and comes to play second-fiddle comedic relief to Poe Dameron’s big-deal theatrics. Where Johnson had a readymade romance triangle to rival the queasily incestuous Luke/Leia/Han subplot—Rey/Finn/Poe—he discards it in favor of a hasty, indeterminate fling between Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran. Putting people of color into X-Wings is a significant gesture. It demands an order of magnitude greater bravery, however, to put a potential Poe/Finn relationship—a inter-racial, same-sex love story—into the saga’s soul. It is too much to ask of our Disney (Sith) overlords.
Fear is ultimately the predominant theme in The Last Jedi. With frightened hesitation, Johnson repeats all the aspects of The Empire Strikes Back—e.g. the training montage, the Star Destroyer chases, the Imperial walkers—except those that really matter. To use the grouchy, aged Luke’s words to his trainee Rey, everything Johnson says about Star Wars is wrong, all caricaturistic and shallow: the Force is about moving rocks.
Johnson does not appear to understand that he works in a tripartite Campbellian hero’s journey that needs a rock-bottom second chapter. He is afraid to put Poe Dameron in trouble and freeze him in some carbonite-by-another-name. Daisy Ridley survives the film with all her limbs intact. Everyone who matters makes it aboard the Falcon alive, even Finn’s abortive love interest—who passed out so melodramatically in the flight seat of her crashed air-speeder.
Worst of all, Johnson is afraid to take risks—to make an homage to Empire (he is making an homage to Empire) worthy of the name. Leia does not asphyxiate; Rey doesn’t bash in Skywalker’s skull. The death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens will likely remain this trilogy’s “I am your Father,” moment: there is nothing as game-changing in The Last Jedi. The compellingly nihilistic reveal that Rey really does come from deadbeat parents is not interrogated. Fittingly, Ridley’s face remains elegantly tearful; it comes nowhere close to Hamill’s contorted, ghoulish gut-punch of a grimace as he sways in the wind at the end of Empire, writhing under Vader’s accusation.
The fandom’s children do not deserve an end-credit sequence focused on a slave kid’s Resistance signet ring, a toy befitting a cereal box. We crave another stunning slow pan from out beyond the galaxy’s stellar accretion disk, a shot that will sear itself with a light saber’s sizzle on the consciousness of a generation—a shot Johnson clearly has the chops to shoot. Johnson, now confirmed to be directing the franchise’s next trilogy must overcome his fear and resist the seduction of Darth Disney.
For, as a wise Jedi Master said during another ill-fated reboot: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side.”